Experts say the young athletes will likely regain their physical health relatively soon, but emotional recovery could be a bigger challenge
For the countless people around the world captivated by the rescue of a young Thai soccer team from a flooded cave, attention will likely shift to the next riveting news story.
But for the 12 boys and their coach, their ordeal is far from over – and the recovery process is only beginning.
All of the boys, the last of whom were pulled out by an international team of divers on Tuesday after being trapped since June 23, have been quarantined while they are tested for infections.
At least two were diagnosed with lung infections while another had an irregular heartbeat. Though several of the players were in “high spirits” as they were rescued, they will likely remain in hospital for several days, officials say.
“They were in a very stressful situation and their immune systems were stressed,” said Liz Wineandy, a registered dietitian at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Centre.
Immediate recovery will likely involve replenishing fluids and combating the effects of starvation and dehydration, Wineandy said. But the damage done by lack of food and water is usually reversible – especially for adolescents.
“I don’t think they’re going to have any long-term damage from this,” Wineandy said. “Usually they will bounce back.”
But even if the young, resilient athletes regain their physical health relatively soon — at least four of the boys have already started to eat normal food — mental and emotional recovery could be a much greater challenge. Such a traumatic experience, experts warn, could affect the boys for the rest of their lives.
“Especially considering how long these boys have been isolated and the type of physical and emotional trauma, they likely will continue to struggle emotionally for a period of time,” said Jamie Aten, the founder and executive director at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.
The reverberations will probably vary by individual, Aten said. Some boys might want constant support; others will want to be alone. Some could have trouble sleeping; some could feel the need to sleep all the time.
Their youth — the boys range in age from 11 to 17, while their coach is 25 — makes them particularly prone to mental struggles in the aftermath of the ordeal.
“They don’t have the same life experience language or coping skills to draw on that an adult might have,” Aten said.
The experience itself of being trapped in a cave could cause specific issues to develop, said Daniel Schechter, the director of Stress, Trauma and Resilience at the Child Study Center, part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at New York University’s medical centre.
Though it is impossible to predict any individual’s response, Schechter warned, the boys might fear dark or confined spaces or being underwater. They may also develop trust issues because their coach — the parental figure in the situation — was unable to get help.
“You can imagine… that, in the coming days to weeks, they would have memories of what had happened to them that might intrude or get in the way of their daily functioning,” Schechter said. “It’s definitely an event that they won’t forget.”
One bright spot, according to the experts: The boys were all together. That sense of community may have helped them survive their time in the cave and could be key going forward.
“They were together as a team; they had social support,” Aten said. “The whole world has been offering support.”